Yum cha hour in Hong Kong City Hall
|Literal meaning||drink tea|
Yum cha (simplified Chinese: 饮茶; traditional Chinese: 飲茶; pinyin: yǐn chá; Jyutping: jam2 caa4; Cantonese Yale: yám chà; lit. "drink tea"), also known as going for dim sum (Cantonese: 食點心), is the Cantonese tradition of brunch involving Chinese tea and dim sum. The practice is popular in Cantonese-speaking regions, including Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, and Macau. It is also carried out in other regions worldwide where there are overseas Chinese communities, like Vietnam and the United States.
Yum cha generally involves small portions of steamed, pan-fried, and deep-fried dim sum dishes served in bamboo steamers, which are designed to be eaten communally and washed down with tea. People often go to yum cha in large groups for family get-togethers or celebrations.
Yum cha in the Cantonese language, both literary and vernacular, literally means "drink tea". "飲" means "to drink", and "茶" means "tea". The phrase dim sum is sometimes used in place of yum cha. Dim sum is the English word based on a Cantonese pronunciation of 點心. In colloquial Mandarin dialects and Standard Vernacular Chinese based on one form of colloquial Mandarin, this character (喝) is often used to mean 飲 for the verb "drink". In the Chinese language, 點心 refers to a variety of foods, including European-style cakes and pastries, and has no equivalent in English. In the English language, dim sum refers to the small-dish appetizers and desserts in Chinese, especially Cantonese, cuisine, whereas yum cha refers to the act of having a meal typically involving such dishes.
Traditionally, yum cha is practiced in the morning or early afternoon, hence the terms chow cha (早茶, "morning tea") or ha ng cha (下午茶, "afternoon tea") when appropriate. The former is also known as yum zou cha (饮早茶), which literally means "drinking morning tea". There has been a recent trend for restaurants to offer dim sum during dinner hours and even late at night, though most venues still generally reserve the serving of dim sum for breakfast and lunch periods. The combination of morning tea, afternoon tea, evening tea, lunch and dinner is known as sam cha leung fan (三茶两饭, "three tea, two meal").
The history of the tradition can be traced back to the period of Xianfeng Emperor, who first referred to establishments serving tea as yi li guan (一厘馆, "1 cent house"). These offered a place for people to gossip, which became known as cha waa (茶话, "tea talk"). These tea houses grew to become their own type of restaurant, and the action of going there as yum cha.
The ways in which dim sum is served has varied over the years. The traditional method, known as teoi ce (推車, "push-cart"), dates back to the early 1960s, when dim sum items were pre-cooked in advance in the kitchen and brought out into the dining area in baskets by the restaurant employees. These people are generally called fo gai (夥計,"staff"); however, customers commonly address staff using the slang terms leng zai (靚仔, "handsome guy") or leng leui/leng jie (靚女/靚姐, "pretty girl" or "pretty lady").
Later on, pushable trolleys with a heating function (often using gas) were used, allowing more items to be brought out at once. Employees would call out the items they were carrying, and a customer who want to order items would then notify the server, who would place the desired items on the table. This allows the customers to receive hot, fresh items quickly and is efficient during periods of high patronage.
Nowadays, many dim sum restaurants have instead adopted a paper-based à la carte ordering system. This method allows only those items which have been ordered to be prepared in the kitchen, reducing the need for leftovers as well as minimizing waste food or ingredients. A few restaurants use both approaches to serving, making use of push-trolleys during peak hours and switching to on-demand ordering in less busy periods.
The cost of a meal was traditionally calculated by the number, size and type of dishes left on the patron's table at the end. In modern yum cha restaurants, dim sum servers sometimes mark orders by stamping a card on the table. Servers in some restaurants use different stamps so that sales statistics for each server can be recorded.
It is customary to pour tea for others before filling one's own tea cup. It is considered good manners to be the first to pour tea.
Tea drinkers may tap the table with two (occasionally one) fingers of the same hand in a gesture known as 'finger kowtow', symbolising thanks. According to a just-so story, this gesture recreates a tale of imperial obeisance and can be traced to the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty, who used to travel incognito. While visiting the Jiangnan region, he once went into a teahouse with his companions. In order to maintain his anonymity, he took his turn at pouring tea. His companions wanted to kowtow, but to do so would have revealed the identity of the emperor. Finally, one of them tapped three fingers on the table (one finger representing their bowed head and the other two representing their prostrate arms).
It is considered rude to have a tea cup full of tea; it is preferred that tea is poured until the cup is about 80% full. The Chinese proverb "茶满欺客，酒满敬人", literally means: it is fraud for the guest if the tea cup is full, but it is a sign of respect when it is alcohol.
Another common custom is to wash the utensils with the first round of tea. This is done whether the utensils had been washed before using or not.
Washing utensils, including chopsticks, tea cups, and bowls by using the first round boiled tea helps to sterilize and remove greasy oil. In addition, the taste of first round boiled tea is considered not the finest yet, and will be richer afterwards.